The political structure of the UAE and its impact on airport security

By Priya Chetty on November 6, 2019

After the British withdrawal from the Gulf, the foundation of UAE was laid in 1971 under the head of the Federal Supreme Council, and since then the UAE’s basic political culture is based on patriarchal system and attest loyalty to tribal leaders (IBP 2002; Foley 1999). President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan (since 2004), whose competency in keeping peace and unity among the emirate is well known (Bazoobandi 2013).

Gulf analysts have consistently praised the President for mediating rivalries among the UAE states, and his skill in bringing the tribal and modern forces together (Foley 1999). Nobody has also questioned his work despite their differences and rivalries owing to his capacity to keep the emirates together, but all of the fears as to who will become the leader after his death (Foley 1999).

Economic and geological dominance

Apart from strong personalities presence, the UAE is considered as being strategically located. Since it produces more than 10% of the World’s oil supply and also has the fourth-largest natural oil reserve in the world (Foley 1999). Apart from being strategically located, the country is also one of the wealthiest in the world and has diplomatically been inclined in assisting International powers in the fight against terror for peace in the region (Foley 1999).

The UAE is liberal in its attitude in dealing with international transactions, making it undergo a significant economic and political change in recent years (Katzman, 2013). In fact, UAE currently has become rather assertive owing to its financial power, making it engage in promoting regional stability in Gulf regions (Map 2) and in International dialogue (Katzman, 2013).

External policies and security dilemmas

In terms of its external policies and security dilemmas posed by foreign states, it can be stated that the United Arab Emirates has always tried to maintain unity among the Arab countries. As a member of the GCC, it is responsible for bringing collaboration among its members. When Kuwait was attacked by Iran, the UAE expressed shock and concern. Since none of the GCC members came forth for help to Kuwait, UAE formed an alliance with the United States to help Saudi Arabia. Later along with other GCC members and the United States, it was responsible for expelling the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. During this period, the United States briefly used UAE as its military base against Iraq.

In brief, the political conditions and security dilemmas in UAE can be understood in five different stages since the day of its foundation: 1971-1978; 1979-88; 1989-2000; 2001-2004; and Post 2004.

1971-1978: the end of British colonialism

The period from 1971-1978 was the period of British withdrawal from the Gulf and the starting of the UAE’s foundation. Right after its foundation, owing to the absence of power magnates, Iran took advantage of UAE and took over the latter’s three Islands known as the Greater and Lesser Tumbs and Abu Musa (Almezaini 2012).

The UAE was thus tested from the beginning and made them raise awareness of security threats. Owing to the Cold War tension and the US’ gradual presence in the Gulf region, the UAE took hold of this situation and started to support the US by exporting oil (Almezaini 2012).

1979-1988: Iranian revolution and its threat

The use of oil was thus a strategic tool used by the UAE for diplomatic foreign policy. The period 1979-88 was the period when Iran underwent a revolution in 1979, and the revolutionized country started threatening the UAE. This was also the period where the security system of the UAE got further challenged due to the Iran-Iraq war (Almezaini 2012).

There was a political assumption that Iran started to give greater attention to the Shi’ites in the UAE from this period onward. Despite the Arab countries experiences of the First Gulf war, the UAE’s foreign policy during this period did not leave any major imprint. All individual Emirati states followed individual foreign policy, as long as it did not clash with the federal foreign policy. The UAE during this period suffered from unity problems (Almezaini 2012).

1989-2000: Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, geopolitical turmoil

The period 1989-2000 marked the end of the Cold war, followed by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. During this time, the UAE transformed its provisional constitution to permanent (Almezaini 2012). The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait marked a major turnover in the UAE’s foreign policy and even a turning point in Arab countries.

Since Cold War ended in 1991, US started to concentrate its power in the Gulf region, and out of insecurities (due to Iran’s invasion), many gulf countries signed security cooperation with the United States. The United States assisted Kuwait, and in doing so, it weakened other international power, championing itself as the superpower.

The UAE on the other hand contempt the Iraqi invasion. It joined the GCC and other international coalitions in assisting the Kuwaitis (Almezaini 2012). Many refugees who came to the UAE were also assisted by the country in terms of food, finance and medical requirements (Almezaini 2012). The Iraqi invasion was seen as disturbing many humanitarian rights, leading to a crisis in Iraq in the later stage under Saddam Hussein’s rule (Almezaini 2012). Such a tense situation coupled with security threats from neighbouring areas made the UAE sign defence and military agreement with the US in 1996 (Almezaini 2012). This western deal, however, was not seen as contradicting the Arab Foreign policy. In fact, the UAE federal foreign policy under Ras Al-Khaimah continued to support Iraq (Almezaini 2012).

2001-2004: A series of global terrorist attacks

The UAE’s political situation during 2001-2004 was affected by three events:

  1. The 9/11 attacks of the World Trade Center,
  2. American Invasion of Iraq in 2001, and,
  3. the death of the founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed in November 2004 (Almezaini 2012).

The 9/11 attack made the US encourage democratic reforms in the Gulf countries, and the UAE reformed many of their political and educational systems. But the monarchical and the tribal way of governance continued.

The attack of Iraq in 2003 was done with the US perceived threat of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. Although UAE was opposed to the war, it ultimately supported the US by providing its base to attack Iraq (Almezaini 2012). Post-2004 it can be seen how after the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan passed away, his son Sheikh Khalifa succeeded as the new president (Almezaini 2012). However, since most of the administrative decision is handled by his half-brother Sheikh Mohammed and the and Vice President Bin Rashed Al Maktoum, the UAE’s foreign policy displays fragmented policies.

Impact on airport security

Hoge and Rose (2001) in the wake of the 9/11 attack rightly stated that among airport authority and airlines, unless the government and state interferes to make security a priority, it generally takes a back seat. The truth is commercial and financial gain is at the top priority of all airlines, and funding security system is not considered as important as gaining profit.

This is especially true for the UAE since there is no central and integrated security system, but allows the individual government to take charge of their own aviation system, leading to rat race among the emirate for commercial and economic success. The fact that the aviation system does not come under the Federal Supreme Council has made the UAE aviation system to be more commercialized rather than manning the most urgent safety and security requirement.

Attention to the aviation management system

Unfortunately, even after the 9/11 attack, the UAE still remains divided in their aviation management system, although under the eyes of the General Civil Aviation Authority, the UAE aviation security system has taken a complete and different turn in early 2015, when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) announced that the UAE aviation security system has become the country who maintains the highest aviation safety standard as per their screening and data audit. The UAE aviation safety shows an impressive safety rate of 98.86%, which is the highest aviation safety rate given to any airports by the ICAO (Saudi Gazette 2015).

Pouring significant capital into establishing a robust airport security system

This international recognition has been hailed by the Emirates as a motivation to continue in bringing safety and security in their aviation system (Saudi Gazette 2015). Thus, despite the aviation systems in the UAE maintaining their own management systems, the security system has been maintained well in each Emirate. The President of the UAE, who is also the President of the Civil Aviation Authority welcomed the announcement as a significant achievement, and attest the emirate’s continuous and persistent efforts in making their airports safe for people (Saudi Gazette 2015; Cornwell 2015).

The Chairman of the General Civil Aviation Authority also welcomed this as an achievement for the aviation safety culture in the UAE. The accomplishment of the UAE in the aviation security system stems out from the fact that the government has invested billions in building the system.

As estimated in early 2015, Dubai alone invested $32billion to develop the Dubai International airport (Cornwell 2015). However, if they integrate the security system keeping aside their differences, then their aviation system can achieve more, and all airports may become entirely free from security threats.